Proper Mental: The 10 worst owners in sports (No. 10-5)

 

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You may have heard, but the Brooklyn Nets are going on a bit of a spending spree. As reported by Fellow Blogger Alex “From the Green Chair” Simons,  they’ve bought Pierce, Williams, Garnett, Lopez, and Joe Johnson in a very short span of time, all for fees approaching the astronomical. In total, they will be paying close to $83 MILLION in Luxury Taxes next year to maintain that squad. For comparison, the LA Lakers – one of the wealthiest and biggest-spending teams in the NBA – were paying less than a third that value last year. As Simons so accurately asks: “where in holy hell is Brooklyn getting their money?”

The answer is Mikhail Prokhorov, a little-known Russian Oligarch worth about $13 billion. Having made his fortune during the chaotic era of privatization, asset-stripping, and generally lawless capitalism of 1990s-Russia in the trade of precious metals, Prokhorov was now seeking to expand into the ownership of sports franchises. He’s a contributing member to a quasi-party that is almost certainly a front for more Putin support (to keep up the illusion of democracy and pluralism) and has loaded up the Brooklyn Nets with a staggering number of trades, free agent signings, and high-value contracts. The guy seems crazy, and the traditionally shady nature of the Russian oligarchy has prompted derision of his ownership.

But when you survey the world of sports ownership, you realize he’s actually not the craziest and most narcissisticly destructive owner in sports. In fact, come to think of it, he doesn’t even come close.

Which brings us to today’s list: the ten craziest owners in sports.

First, an overview of the criteria for determining craziness: It’s not enough for the owner to be eccentric and shady outside of ownership – the reason Prokhorov doesn’t make the cut. That craziness must actually contribute to your team’s performance on- and off-field/court/pitch/rink/bowl/whatever. While the nature of the world of billionaires is such that you get some very…interesting characters (crazy? Out-there? Balls-to-the-wall insane? We’ll go with ‘interesting’), that craziness doesn’t always lead to the team imploding spectacularly. Our crazy owners must have used their craziness to actively destroy the team as well.

Second, a word on why soccer figures so prominently in the list of craziest owners. Three reasons. 1) Our own aggregate knowledge of the world of soccer is far more extensive, hence we’re aware of more psychotic and enormously destructive owners than in other sports. 2) The money to be made in soccer is staggering – the Premier League’s 2013-14 TV deal is five times the size of the NBA’s, and that barely includes the revenue to be made from international friendlies, The Champions League, Domestic Cups, and the World Cup. The bigger the carcass, the more numerous and larger the piranhas will be. 3) the rules surrounding ownership in the myriad of soccer leagues – particularly those of Spain and Eastern Europe – are quite lax. While England has a ‘fit and proper person’ test (you can’t be wanted for financial crimes) that hasn’t seemed to stop the crazies from buying up teams. That soccer is the world’s biggest sport also means there will be more simply by virtue of it being a larger field of competition.

With that in mind:

Honourable Mentions

Roman Abramovich – Chelsea FC: Abramovich’s business dealings have been the source of great controversy in both Russia and Britain, along with several staggeringly huge lawsuit fights with fellow oligarchs. That said, Chelsea have improved enormously under his ownership – three Premier Leagues, a Champions League, a Europa League, three FA Cups, and consistent challenging for silverware. He’s trigger-happy in the extreme – apart from Jose “The Special One” Mourinho, only one manager has lasted more than 270 days in charge (Carlo Ancelotti from 2009-2011). But the general success Chelsea has gained keeps him off the list.

Everyone who owns the Calgary Flames: And I’m not just saying this as a bitter hometown Flames fan who watched them pull off one good cup run in my childhood before slowly collapsing before everyone’s eyes due to a series of spectacularly bad trades, bone-headed contract talks, a seeming love-in with octogenarian players who would need bionic legs to function at the elite level, and a draft record so appallingly bad that Billy Bean of Moneyball fame would probably consider them worthy of summary execution. First, you make your uber-good coach try and juggle the impossible balancing act of being coach and GM at the same time. You then hire a series of GMs and coaches who make increasingly erratic trades (Dion Phaneuf to Toronto in exchange for a bag of magic beans), appalling draft picks (name me a Calgary Flames first-round pick other than Phaneuf. Try. I dare you.) It’s a group of eight owners, and the sad fact is that their level of self-destruction is largely just down to staggering incompetence. But they’re not actually crazy, so they miss out. But Jesus Christ are they incompetent.

The Contenders

10: The Glazers – Manchester United FC

When Malcolm Glazer bought a majority stake in Manchester United FC in 2005, they were the second wealthiest sports team in the world, pulling in less cash only than Real Madrid, and sitting pretty on a decade of debt-free spending. That all ended with the club’s purchase by the American venture/vulture-capitalists, who acquired the club through a process known in the finance world as a Leveraged Buyout. A Leveraged Buyout (or LBO) involves the use of a substantial loan to purchase the asset, with the to-be-owned asset itself used as collateral. Basically, they used Manchester United’s own money to buy Manchester United. If this sounds fishy, it’s because it is.

Fast forward to 2010, and Manchester United are deep in debt. The Glazers stuffed the club with close to half a BILLION in debt from their purchase of it, and nearly wrecked the club’s finances just on the payment of interest. Alex Ferguson called Real Madrid “a pit of vipers”, yet financial trouble meant that Cristiano Ronaldo – one of the greatest talents to ever play in the Premier League – was sold to them in July 2009 for a then-record of $120 million in transfer fees. How much of that did the club reinvest? None. Every single goddamn penny went to pay off interest accumulated by the Glazers. With the exception of Robin Van Persie in 2012, MUFC hasn’t made a big-money transfer-buy in close to seven years.

Only the genius of Alex Ferguson enabled Manchester United to avoid implosion. He kept the aging core of his team together – Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, and of course Wayne Rooney – yet the need to sell off players (and refrain from buying them) meant that the squad that lined up against FC Barcelona in the 2011 European Cup Final was far weaker than the one from the 2009 Final (and they were battered even harder at Wembley than Rome). With Ferguson’s reign coming to an end in 2013, it remains to be seen whether David Moyes can stave off the eventual implosion that seems likely in virtually all other LBO-financed takeovers. Time will tell, and determine whether the Glazers move further up in these rankings.

But just for the act of cannibalizing such a club’s wealth and forcing the selloff of one of their best-ever players, the Glazers more than make this list.

9: Mike Ashley – Newcastle United FC:

You could start with Mike Ashley’s use of another leveraged buyout to make staggering amounts of money off the club that resides in an economically depressed city. You could add to that the forced renaming of the stadium after his own company – from St. James’ Park to The Sports Direct Arena. You could even mention his frequent self-pay-days to give back the debt he loaded Newcastle with. But all that is eclipsed by a man named Joe Kinnear.

Honestly, just hiring Joe “go fuck yourselves” Kinnear as Sporting Director is enough to put Ashley in contention. His deputy has the mind and soul of a Latin American despot trapped in the body of a Director of Football. Brought in because “I can pick up the phone and call any manager in the Premier League – Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, anyone”, in reality he has likely been brought in to wage a not-so-subtle turf war against Allan Pardew on behalf of Mike Ashley himself. He also signed exactly zero players following a season where Newcastle barely staved off relegation and lost their first derby against Sunderland in nearly three decades. If Kinnear’s tenure goes as predicted, Mike Ashley could find himself cracking the top five. Expect him to sub himself on as coach for Alan Pardew by November before forgetting the names of all his French players and leaving in a curse-filled rant that declares Newcastle “A bunch of <CENSORED> <CENSORED> <CENSORED> <CENSORED>s that <CENSORED>ing <CENSORED>d me over”. He also once referred to Defensive Midfielder Johann Cabaye as “Johan Kebab”. Frequently refers to the press as “those fucks”, “you motherfuckers”, “those cocks”, and “those fuckers”. Kinnear considers media relations to be one of his strong suits. No, I did not make the previous sentence up; he actually does. Half of being a football owner is picking your deputies wisely, and the off-the-charts insanity of Joe Kinnear more than gets Mike Ashley into the top ten.

He also got his club’s shirt sponsored by a payday loan company that makes the mob’s rates look reasonable. In a town with 30% of the populace below the poverty line and the highest rate of personal bankruptcy in the whole of England. Top points for paying attention to local sensitivities.

8: Ken Bates – Leeds United

When Leeds United were bought by billionaire Ken Bates – the man who sold Chelsea FC to Roman Abramovich – they were coming off a difficult season that had seen them relegated due to being forced to sell off their best players by debt troubles. Bates claimed he wanted ‘one more challenge’ and hoped to bring Leeds United back to their glory days of the 1990s, where they were regular contenders for spots in the Champions League.

In his seven years in charge, the club were relegated to League One (the third division), entered Bankruptcy administration (twice), burned through five coaches in seven seasons, saw the continued sale of their young stars, and the continued decline of Leeds United from perennial challengers to the laughing-stock of the Third Division. In-fighting between Bates and Supporters Groups was constant, over everything from hiring and firing staff to ticket prices. When Bates finally relented and sold the club to a Middle Eastern consortium, he made an absolute killing on the sale – much as he had with Chelsea in 2003-4 – but chose to remain on as the club’s Chairman, further attracting the rage of fans.

And the club he sold? They’ve since won four FA Cups, three Premier Leagues, two League Cups, a Champions League and Europa League. Chelsea were blessed to be rid of the man.

7: Jerry Reinsdorf – Chicago Bulls

The great Jerry Reinsdorf, owner and chairman of both the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox since 1985 and 1981 respectively.  Despite being one of the most respected and successful baseball owners of all time his time as the owner of the Chicago Bulls he was known as a cheapskate and an anti-labor union hardliner. He had meaningful influence in the institution of the NBA salary cap, he also was the owner of arguably the greatest dynasty in NBA history, Michael Jordan’s 1990’s Bulls. Unfortunately, he will be remembered more for his money grubbing  and early dismantling of the  6-time champion Bulls. Coming off of their 6th championship in 7 years, including  2 “3 Peats” which were only interrupted by Michael Jordan’s foray into baseball mediocrity. After their second 3peat and the 1998 NBA Finals,  Reinsdorf  decided to “take his ball and go home on top” and refused to re-sign the expiring contracts of Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson or Dennis Rodman. The first domino to fall was Rodman, who due to a rash of injuries and increasing unpredictability was not expected to be re-signed by the Bulls by many but when Phil Jackson asked for a pay raise ( you know, the one you may expect when your team has won championships 6 out of the past 7 years) Reinsdorf told Phil to take his raise shove it right in his peyote filled posterior. Jackson and Jordan had come to an agreement that neither would continue to work without the other, so when it was apparent that Phil wasn’t going to be re-signed Michael immediately retired. This would open the door for Reinsdorf to trade Scottie Pippen to the Houston Rockets in a sign and trade ( to save money)  and not to resign other notable players such as Steve Kerr and Luc Longley.

To this day befuddled Bulls and NBA fans feel that this series of actions taken by Chicago management robbed the Bulls of at least one and potentially 2 more NBA championships, which makes it easily the greatest mistake in the history of the franchise. Since that time the Bulls haven’t managed to make it out of the second round of the playoffs… Woops

Here is a life lesson for any aspiring owners out there:

If you have the greatest player of all time, one of the most winning coaches, and your just coming off 3 straight championships, DON’T BREAK UP THE BAND! You’re going to look like a dick.

And it’s probably because you are one.

6: Jesus Gil – Atletico Madrid:

Ah Jesus Gil, the man who ran Atletico Madrid – Real’s cross-town rivals  – from 1987-2004. His background isn’t exactly saintlike: Like all Spanish football bigwigs, he was a construction magnate. He was arrested in the 1960s when one of his buildings collapsed and killed sixty people. He eventually served three prison sentences, and was being prepared for trial over a fourth when he suffered a massive stroke and died in 2004. His football-running antics weren’t much better. In seventeen years in charge of the club, he burned through 36 managers, 160 signings, was known to consult his horse (Emperor Caligula-style) on potential transfers, once publicly called for the team’s plane to ‘crash into the sea’ after a particularly bad performance in Las Palmas, and had his office in the back of one of Madrid’s most infamous brothels. When Atletico Madrid won the League/Cup Double in 1995-6, he celebrated by parading around Madrid on the back of an elephant. He once released Atletico’s entire youth team because there was “no point”; the youth team included Raul Gonzalez , who would go onto win six La Liga and three Champions League titles with Real Madrid while becoming the club’s captain and all-time top scorer (guy’s got an eye for talent. Or not). Outside of football, he was also the mayor of Marbella for nineteen years, until the Spanish court declared him unfit to hold office after nearly $400 million went unaccounted for in the town’s treasury. Though Atletico won the Double in 1996, Gil drove the club deep into debt, resulting in its relegation three years later. His son – the current president of Atletico – continued in that vein, racking up nearly half a billion in tax debt and dismissing coach after coach. They’ve recently found some stability under coach Diego Simeone – winning two Europa League titles in three years, plus a UEFA Supercup and a Copa Del Rey title, but the debt and erratic turf-wars between the owner and President remain.

Gil was also found to have acquired the club by illegal means in 1992. How, you ask, did a man this bent go so long without being carted off to the supermax wing? Well, he had a friend in a high place. A guy by the name of Generalisimo Francisco Franco, Spain’s Fascist dictator of three decades.

Jesus (Gil) may have died with an Atletico flag draped around his coffin, but he definitely won’t be ascending to heaven anytime soon. He makes Ken Bates and the Reinsdorf appear beacons of morality and good judgement.

Stay tuned for Part 2: The Top of the Table, and the Podium.

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